Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

Ted Grimsrud—June 1 2015

[This essay was written for what appears now to be an aborted book that was to collect essays from various writers on Christian pacifism.]

Does Christian pacifism make the claim that everyone should be pacifist? Or is pacifism only a calling for those who affirm Jesus as Lord? This issue can—and should—be addressed on a theological and philosophical level. However, it may also be addressed on a more pragmatic level. Are there wars that should have been fought, that could be considered legitimately justifiable wars? If there are no ways that any actual war could be justifiable, is that a basis for claiming that everyone should be pacifist (defining “pacifism” here as the conviction that one should never take part in or support warfare)?

The one certain “just war”?

One way to begin to address the question about how widely we should advocate for pacifism is to look closely at the one war that most Americans, at least, including even many American pacifists, believe was a “just war”—World War II. Robert Brimlow, a Roman Catholic philosopher and committed pacifist, draws such a conclusion: “The war against Hitler, Nazism, and the atrocities they perpetuated certainly satisfies all the requirements for a just war: even if no other war was justifiable, even if every other dispute could have been settled by nonviolent means, that dispute could only have been solved through violence.”[1]

This statement is part of Brimlow’s argument in favor of pacifism—but it’s a pacifism based on a sense of the special calling of followers of Jesus. The kind of nonviolence Brimlow advocates is based on faithfulness, not on the expectation that it might practically be the best way to deal with conflict.

In the same book with Brimlow’s essay, Methodist theologian Stephen Long makes a similar argument. Long also suggests that World War II may be seen as a just war, where it was shown that “violence and war do sometimes work.”[2] Long argues for what he calls “christological pacifism,” an approach that “only makes sense because of the christological convictions we hold about what God has done in Christ. If Jesus is not the unique and definitive expression of God’s economy, of how God redeems the world and engages it politically through the cross, resurrection, and ascension—if he were not bodily raised from the dead—then pacifism makes no sense.”[3]

However, there is no evidence that I know of of any correlation between Long’s kind of christological convictions and the likelihood of one holding those convictions being a pacifist. World War II was perhaps as true a test of pacifist convictions as could be imagined. Because of the widespread popularity of that war, only those with clear pacifist convictions would have chosen to be legal conscientious objectors. If Long is correct about the link between a high christology and pacifism, you would expect people who affirmed that christology to tend toward pacifism even in face of a popular war. As it turned out, about 12,000 young American men took the CO route, and something more than 12,000,000 entered the military. That is, the number of Americans who responded to the War as pacifists was something like 0.01%. The traditions that tended to emphasize doctrine more (e.g., Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelical Protestants) had few if any conscientious objectors.[4]

To respond to a phenomenon such as World War II as a Christian pacifist, it seems to me, requires a broader sense of how this pacifism works than that provided by Brimlow and Long. To affirm pacifism without condemning World War II as an unjust war weakens the case for pacifism significantly.

It is possible (I’d say probable) that the failure of American Christians to affirm pacifism during World War II points to theological deficiencies, especially in relation to christology. However, that even Christian pacifists today won’t challenge that war’s moral validity reflects a failure to see the necessary connection between pragmatic and principled (or confessional) factors that support pacifism.

I propose that Christian pacifists should indeed be willing to challenge the myth of World War II as a just war. Even if we must use just war reasoning to do that, we are some of the few people who would think to apply that reasoning rigorously to the War. Certainly it is good for Christian pacifists who so choose to devote their energies to making the theological case for Christian pacifism—including arguing why affirming Jesus as divine and advocating for an pacifist implications of baptism and the eucharist. And it is good to reflect on the costly implications of a Christian pacifist stance that would lead a person to accept martyrdom rather than take up arms to stop evil. However, such “christological” or confession or principled pacifism should not accept the assumption that pacifism has little pragmatic basis.

A new typology

In general, writing about moral reflection on war and peace from Christian perspectives tends to repeat the general typology that was introduced by historian Roland Bainton over half a century ago in his Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace.[5] Bainton sees three categories: pacifism, the just war, and the crusade. This typology leaves too much out and over-simplifies what is left. One of the main problems is that only a tiny minority of Christians would actually hold to pacifism, the just war, or the crusade (as Bainton defines them). As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: Negatively disposed toward war and positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes, as I will explain below.

(I) “Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war. They do differ on whether that benefit of the doubt may ever be overcome.

A. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. One example would be how many Mennonites have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” Hence, the relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. The pacifisms of Brimelow and Long would likely fit here as well.

Most World War II conscientious objectors fit in this category. They refused military service, in the most part, simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if that may have been a “just war,” they would still have refused to fight. In this view someone could even affirm that at times warfare has served the overall human welfare while still refusing to fight. However, as noted, only a tiny minority of American Christians acted on this view during the War.

B. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war due to conclusions based on the evidence of how warfare works in the world. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, the pacifism is based on evidence, not simply starting convictions. This view suggests that in history, each war has and certainly will violate some if not all the that standard just war criteria, such as: not the last resort, not fought for the purpose of serving peace, the harm outweighs the good, noncombatants are severely harmed, et al.

These two forms of pacifism often may reinforce each other. One could start with a principled pacifism view based on, say, church teaching or a kind of moral conversion. However, with sensitized moral perceptions, one could recognize that wars in actuality do not meet the just war criteria—war does not work for human wellbeing in practice. Or, one could start with an evidence-oriented analysis and after one concludes no known wars have ever been just, one begins to start with that assumption when reflecting on the morality of warfare.

C. Skeptical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” in large part due to more openness about the possibility of the just war criteria being met. In the United States, this view would not qualify for legal conscientious objector status because of not being opposed to war in all its forms. This view fits in the “selective conscientious objector” category (a category not given legal standing) by saying that particular wars are unjust, but not every possible war. However, this view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was, in fact, a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many prospective draftees who went to Canada or prison. This view could also lead to “nuclear pacifism”—the conviction that based on just war grounds, any possible nuclear war is unjust.

My description of the “skeptical just war” view is close to the way many describe the “just war” position in general. They assume that this is the main alternative to pacifism in the Christian tradition. However, this is actually a very unusual view in terms of actual adherents. Notice that this view has no legal standing in the United States; those opposed to particular wars are still required to enter the military in the case of a draft or stay in the military if they are already there. You would think if this view actually were common, there would have been more effort to make it legally viable in this country.

II. “Positively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “positively disposed” approaches that follow is the conviction that, morally, war is inevitable, even necessary, at times and that therefore we should not imagine a world without war—which in practice means that we should not assume the wars need to overcome a benefit of the doubt against war before being supported or even accepted.

A. Just war as restraint. This view accepts the inevitability of war and believes that it is counter-productive, even dangerous, to seek to do away with war. Partly this is so because such a negative attitude toward war hinders preparedness efforts centered on maintaining a strong military for deterrence purposes and for serving national interests that might be jeopardized by an inability to respond appropriately with military force when necessary.

This view also asserts that for citizens to imagine doing away with war may ironically reinforce the interests of those who believe in total war. If you focus on stopping war and fail (which will almost certainly happen), you will miss the chance to influence efforts to restain the violence of war. This view applies just war reasoning to try to make wars more moral (or, at least, less immoral). It focuses on seeking to limit the damage done by war (“restraint”). In practice, in the United States, advocates of this position have almost always supported the specific wars their country engaged in (for example, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq).[6]

B. Blank check.[7] Though this view has not been named or studied by students of the history war, it surely is by far the most common view held by Christians since the 4th century and as well as in the modern United States. The core conviction here, perhaps overtly voiced or perhaps simply assumed, is that citizens have the responsibility to go to war when their nation calls upon them to.

Though the influential fourth century bishop, Augustine, has been called the “founder” of Christian just war thought, his influence in undergirding the “blank check” approach has probably his most important legacy. Augustine argued that citizens should leave the reasoning concerning a war’s justness to the government. A soldier’s responsibility is simply to obey orders, to treat their task as a job to be done (and not to ask moral questions). Likewise, non-military citizens also are expected to support their national government during wartime.[8]

So there is a hint of “just war” reasoning in this view in that one hopes that one’s leaders make sure that their cause is just before taking their nation into war and one believes there could be some vague kind of accountability should leaders enter into an unjust war. However, on the practical level, Christian citizens do not undertake just war reasoning prior to deciding to go to war nor do they do just war reasoning in the course of the conflict as to whether the tactics are too unrestrained. They simply obey orders.

C. Crusade. This view differs from the blank check by having a more positive view of the goodness of some wars. If one’s nation is God’s agent for good in the world, if there are transcendental values at stake, when one has a clear sense of calling from God to fight, then one must do so. Since for a crusade, the war is serving an absolute good, one need not be concerned with the just war theory and its concerns for proper procedures, limited tactics, and win-ability. In a crusade, the calling is to fight, all-out, and leave the outcome to God.


One way this typology seems better than other typologies is by separating two general approaches to pacifism. In practice, most pacifists probably combine the principled and pragmatic approaches. However, the distinction helps us see how pacifism and certain approaches to just war philosophy actually have a great deal in common and are part of one continuum that includes all those who are disposed against war.

A second element of this typology that seems new is actually to draw a dividing line between two distinct just war approaches. The “just war as restraint” view has much more in common with pacifism than with the “favorable just war” view (and likewise the “just war as restraint” view could be seen to link more closely with the blank check and crusade).

But probably the main contribution this typology can make is to lift up the “blank check” as not only a distinctive view rarely noticed in most discussions on this topic—but actually as by far the dominant view among Christians (and other citizens as well). In other words, most discussions of Christian attitudes toward war are blind to the predominant “attitude.” Hence, most of these discussions more or less mislead and provide little clarity to this most important moral concern.

What about World War II?

The principled pacifist view would not have much to say about World War II—but to avoid challenging the myth of the “good war” is something pacifists should not accept. The moral legacy of the War has been devastating for the U.S. and for the world—and for Christianity as well.[9] For Americans, this war stands not as the “war that ended other wars” nearly so much as the “war that justified other wars.” World War II shows, in the American “good war” mythology, that sometimes going to war is the best option when it comes to dealing with the “bad guys.”

Unfortunately, seeing war as sometimes the best option leads to empowering the societal structures that are needed to prepare for war—and such empowerment has loosed on American society transformative forces. In the past the nation inclined toward an attitude that you go to war as a last resort. Now, the nation sees many conflicts throughout the world that require a militarized first response. Hence, the extraordinary American military presence around the world, the way the United States spends about as much on its military as the rest of the world combined, and the situation that has faced American voters where their choice has been limited to two versions of militarism.

Borrowing from social critic Naomi Klein,[10] we could say that the “shock” of total war in the early 1940s led directly to the takeover of the United States by advocates of the American national security ideology. That point of vulnerability led to the creation of permanent structures such as the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the nuclear weapons program. As a consequence of the transformative influence of these entities, in the United States, “all politics is a politics of war” (Walter Wink).[11]

It is also the case that seriously to doubt the justness of World War II is almost entirely unheard of. Even historians who raise questions about the War’s justness for almost invariably conclude that indeed the War ultimately was just.[12] And for many others, likely the large majority of American historians, simply to raise moral questions about the War is unacceptable. As historian Eric Bergerud wrote: “I find it almost incomprehensible that anyone would claim to discover moral ambiguity in World War II…. If World War II was not necessary, no war has been.”[13]

Certainty such as that expressed by Bergerud, though, does not free us from critical moral reflection on World War II. The need for moral reflection is actually heightened given the impact of beliefs such as his on attitudes about militarism in the generations since that war. Though we do not see much evidence of it actually working this way, the just war tradition has at its core claims that should lead to a rejection of Bergerud’s assertion that a war stands as a just war simply because it is deemed “necessary.”

Just war analysis—and moral reflection in general—should establish stable criteria for moral evaluation and then apply those objectively to the actions of both one’s enemies and of oneself and one’s friends and allies. Norman Davies, a rare historian who does apply this approach to his account of World War II, expresses it this way: “All sound moral judgments operate on the basis that the standards applied to one side of the relationship must be applied to all sides.”[14]

Just cause doubts

When we use the two basic categories of just war analysis, “cause” and “conduct,” we may find a great deal of evidence (decisive, in my view) that this was not a just war for the United States. It is true that the official entry of the United States into the War as a full-fledged protagonist came about due to two events that few would question provided just cause: (1) the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, and (2) the German declaration of war on the United States a few days later.

However, neither of these events initiated the U.S. involvement in the War—involvement that was anything but an expression of genuine neutrality (the official status of the U.S. in relation to the conflicts prior to Pearl Harbor). The U.S. was strongly on the side of Great Britain in the conflict with the Germans and on the side of China in the conflict with the Japanese. The events in early December 1941, thus, were actually more simply steps of acceleration in an ever-growing conflict between the U.S. and the Axis powers than the beginning of the conflict.

So, we should ask if the American entry into the conflict prior to the overt declarations of war had just causes. But when we do, things get more ambiguous. The “good war mythology” tends to cite three main reasons why the U.S. involvement in the War meets the criterion of just cause: (1) the need to protect the U.S. from a direct invasion by Germany and/or Japan; (2) the moral imperative to stop the domination of the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan in the cause of furthering democracy; and (3) the need to do all everything to rescue the Jews who were being annihilated by the Nazis.

In the actual event, though, it appears that none of these three reasons actually played a major role in American involvement. We have no evidence that either the Japanese or the Germans had in mind a serious attempt to conquer and occupy the United States. And no one who understood military possibilities could have imagined a successful invasion of the United States that would have to cross either the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans.

Surely, many Americans opposed the tyrannical dynamics in Japan and, especially, Germany. However, the United States and Britain joined in alliance with a regime equally tyrannical as Hitler’s Germany—the Soviet Union under the dominance of Stalin. Insofar as this alliance actually helped sustain and even advance Soviet tyranny, we can scarcely say that the cause for the U.S. engaging in the conflict was to defeat tyranny.

The issue with “saving Jews” is perhaps even more clear-cut than the other two. Many American and British leaders looked positively upon the Nazis in 1933 as a bulwark against Communist influences. When the Nazis came into power they immediately began implementing anti-Jewish policies. As the violence toward Jews increased, humanitarian voices were raised to offer aid for the beleaguered Jews. Mostly, the humanitarian efforts were thwarted by U.S. and British political leaders. When the War actually began and the genocidal violence increased, these leaders continued to resist efforts to offer help. The western Allies simply were not motivated by a desire directly to save Jewish lives.[15] In fact, the War’s expansion likely had the impact of making the lot of Europe’s Jews even worse.[16]

Why, then, did the U.S. engage in policies that made war inevitable and then engage in a total war to defeat the Axis powers? Partly, the U.S. had been involved in a clash of imperialisms with Japan dating back at least to the 1920s and accelerating with competing desires for dominance in China. The war with Japan happened because of a series of escalating moves taken by both sides in the conflict.

As well, the U.S. developed close ties with Great Britain, and so offered ever-increasing aid to the British after September 1939 and the outbreak of war in Europe. This aid took an ever-more overtly militaristic cast and involved the U.S. in the conflict as a partisan ally of the British. The British war with the Germans was initiated due to the British war-alliance with the Polish dictatorship, an alliance entered into largely due to British imperial concerns (not due to noble motives such as self-determination and disarmament as later claimed).

In time, it became clear that the United States would benefit greatly from this war and that the forces within the United States who would benefit the most were the military and business elites. The War was an opportunity for the military to move into an unprecedented place of power and influence within the federal government, and it was an opportunity for American corporations to profit immensely from the U.S. becoming the one global economic superpower.

None of these dynamics satisfy the traditional criteria for just cause for going to war (e.g., self-preservation, defending innocent victims, serving the interests of the entire county, leading to a better peace than existed before the war).

Just conduct?

Many who write about World War II seem to assume that the causes were just—and then act as if that ends the process of moral discernment. Even if the causes were clearly just (and I believe that they were not), the just war tradition—based on its stated values—should insist that the moral discernment is only beginning. The second area of concern for just war thought, after reflection on whether the cause is just, is to reflect morally on how the war is conducted. In brief, the two main criteria used to judge conduct are proportionality (that the damage caused by the fighting not outweigh the good the war accomplished) and noncombatant immunity (that those not engaged as soldiers in the conflict not be the direct object of military actions).

In relation to both of these criteria, the conduct of the United States military clearly crossed the line into forbidden behavior. Most obviously, the U.S. provided support when the British attacked the inner city of Hamburg and intentionally created a firestorm that killed tens of thousands of noncombatants. Later, the Americans cooperated fully with the February 1945 attack on the defenseless German city of Dresden, a city with no military significance—an attack that likely killed well over 50,000 noncombatants.

As the U.S. turned its focus on Japan, the first of a series of attacks on defenseless Japanese cities, March 9, 1945 on Tokyo, created another firestorm, surpassing the deaths caused in the bombing of Dresden. The climax of the American attacks on Japanese civilian populations came in August, 1945, with the first use of atomic bombs—first on Hiroshima, then on Nagasaki. With these attacks, any pretense of adhering to standards of proportionality and noncombatant immunity was ended.

We might also add the practices of America and Britain’s key ally in the War, the Soviet Union. The Soviets’ conduct was extraordinarily brutal. In allying with the Soviets the U.S. actually empowered a spirit at least as vicious as the spirit of Nazism—the spirit of Stalinism. As the Soviets turned back the German invasion and moved toward Berlin, their tactics were some of the most brutal violations of just conduct criteria that had ever been perpetrated upon enemy noncombatant populations—murder, rape, destruction of civilian infrastructure, and more.

Why this unjust war was a moral disaster for the United States

When I apply the just war criteria to the American involvement to World War II, I conclude that it was not a just war. I do acknowledge that the Axis powers were guilty of aggression and many atrocities and, thus, that those who tried to stop them did so with justice on their side. However, it does not actually appear that the main focus of the aggression of the Axis was aimed toward the U.S., certainly not until after the Americans had devoted much effort to opposing the Axis. And it also does not actually appear that the Allies were motivated by the need to stop the atrocities—and in fact one of the three main Allies (the Soviet Union) had itself engaged in extraordinary atrocities in the years prior to the War.

And the Axis powers egregious violation of just conduct standards from the start of the conflict does not justify violations by the Allies. The U.S. probably did not enter World War II for just cause and certain did not prosecute it with just means. As well, the moral legacy of the War does not only have to do with what had happened through August 1945. We also need to consider the impact of prosecuting the War on American society and the aftermath of the War in relation to American foreign policy. I suggest we should broaden our sense of how we use critical just war analyses—not only just cause and just conduct, but also just consequences over time.

What if World War II was an unjust war? Obviously that judgment cannot change the past. The main issue related to how we now think about World War II is how this might impact our current disposition toward American military policies and toward warfare in general.

If we conclude that World War II was unjust, and if we join with that conclusion a conviction that we should never act unjustly or support unjust actions (which should be part of the set of assumptions just war philosophy affirms), then we will no longer use that war as a basis for arguing for the necessity of warfare. If we can’t use the War as such a basis, we will have a much more difficult time making such an argument in general. Certainly the wars the U.S. has engaged in since World War II have even less chance of meeting the criteria for just wars.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. stood with unprecedented economic power and unmatched international prestige as the bearer of the ideals portrayed to great effect in statements such as the Atlantic Charter[17] and the initial declaration of the “United Nations.” These statements rallied people to defeat forces in the world that stood implacably against ideals such as self-determination and disarmament.

The generations that have followed have shown that the U.S. was not a good steward of the power it possessed in 1945. What the War actually did for the United States was push the country in deeply problematic directions. The impact of the War was: (1) decisively to corrupt the American democratic polity, (2) decisively to empower the forces of militarism in the country that have since 1945 led the U.S. into foreign policy disaster after foreign disaster and visited so much violence and destruction on major sections of the world that the term “American holocaust”[18] may not be much of a hyperbole, and (3) decisively to shift the economic center of gravity in the country toward the corporate sector, setting the country on a path of long-term corruption, exploitation, and—in a genuine sense—economic self-immolation.

The basic moral lesson we should learn from World War II is to find ways to resist the lure of trust in military action. Certainly the rise of the Axis powers created the need for decisive resistance to their politics of extraordinarily destructive nationalistic brute power and nihilism. But the path of resistance that American society took, while in a superficial and short-term sense victorious, actually itself led to the long-term victory of the kind of “nationalistic brute power and nihilism” linked with fascism. If even this “good war” led to such a moral disaster, then Americans (for their own sake and for the sake of the wider world) must find ways to resist the evils of aggressive militarism that do not rely on the use of aggressive militarism.

Pursuing an unjust war, as you would expect, had numerous long-term morally devastating consequences. When a democracy pursues a war that does not clearly have a just cause, it is inevitable that the democratic processes will be corrupted. In theory, a just war approach should enhance democracy because if the benefit of doubt is against going to war, it will take clear and persuasive evidence to justify the war. This evidence should be publicly presented, with open debate, and if the case is not made the decision that follows should be negative about entering the war. And just causes should be factors that are consistent with genuine national security and the best interests of the nation.

In the lead up to World War II, though, we do not see from the democratically elected government led by Franklin Roosevelt an honest setting out of the factors for and against intervention and an illumination of the democratic values at stake. Rather, we see a propaganda campaign that was an exercise in pro-war advocacy that distorted the facts and, perhaps most tellingly, fanned unwarranted fears of American national security being breached through the dangers of invasion. When the War did come, the stage was set for on-going policy-making that paid little heed to democratic practices and would long outlast the “emergency” that initially justified it. The most notable examples are the creation of the atomic weapons program and the insistence upon unconditional surrender as a non-negotiable war goal.

The prosecution of World War II permanently transformed the American way of fighting. An example would be the reluctance to target civilians that characterized the philosophy of the emerging American air warfare prior to 1941. This reluctance was completely gone by the end of the War; witness the firebombing of Tokyo and the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ensuing wars—Korea and Vietnam most notably—saw unrestrained air warfare that completely disregarded the just war criteria of proportionality and noncombatant immunity.[19]

And, of course, the continued development and willingness to deploy ever-more destructive nuclear weapons witnesses to such a disregard for just war constraints. Numerous times (e.g., Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, even Central America in the 1980s) major policy makers in the U.S. actively advocated the use of nuclear bombs. That they were in the end not used does not change the reality that they easily could have been.

In 1937, the U.S. military was small and peripheral to the society as a whole. It ranked in size sixteenth in the world, between Portugal and Romania. Today, we cannot imagine the U.S. as such a non-militarized society. In the late 1930s, important people in the country did not approve of what they called military “unpreparedness.” They were ready to take advantage of the deteriorating international order. They moved the country toward what proved to be an extraordinary reorientation of the nation’s priorities that moved the American military from the periphery to the center of the society—permanently.

At first, public opinion and Congressional policies remained reluctant to move from the official neutrality and non-intervention of American foreign policy. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and America’s close British ally declared war, the pro-intervention campaign increased its intensity, and Roosevelt moved the country closer toward engagement. Even two years later, though, while the U.S. was actively supporting the British war effort—as well as the Chinese struggle against Japanese aggression—the votes still were not present for Roosevelt to move the country the final step into open warfare.

Three months before the U.S. formally entered the War, ground was broken for the Pentagon—at a location, symbolically and geographically, some distance from the center of the federal government across the Potomac River. The huge physical structure was completed with remarkable speed. The stage was set for the American military to gain a measure of freedom from the constraints of the democratic checks and balances of governmental oversight.[20] Then, the next month, Roosevelt approved the establishment of a program to create atomic weapons. The Manhattan Project remained top secret but soon absorbed tremendous resources and inexorably moved the country into a future of tremendous peril.

The War itself saw an irreversible transformation. Never again would it be thinkable that the American military would rank with second- and third-rate militaries such as Portugal and Romania. By the end of the War, the U.S. military was the world’s most powerful. World War II provided the “shock” that empowered those supportive of the armed forces to establish and empower these key engines for on-going militarization. The Pentagon and the nuclear weapons program gained their sense of legitimacy from the “needs” of total war—and then, when the War was over—devoted their energies to retaining and actually expanding their domination of the American body politic.

Then, the National Security Act of 1947 established the Central Intelligence Agency and consolidated the various branches of the military. It also created the National Security Council as a top leadership group to guide the nation’s policies. Around this same time, President Truman delivered his famous speech that delineated the “Truman Doctrine” that asserted, in effect, that any resistance to American hegemony anywhere in the world would be seen as a Communist threat and a basis for military intervention. The die was cast.

So, World War II was a test of whether war in fact can ever serve the moral good. It in effect tested the hypothesis that war might occasionally be necessary and even good. After all, we may point to many reasons why this war was necessary. We probably cannot overstate the moral corruption of Nazi Germany and its aggressive efforts to spread that corruption. Imperial Japan was almost as bad. And, for the United States, at least, the war was won at relatively low cost and led to unprecedented prosperity and power in its aftermath—that is, the world’s pioneering democracy was in position to further its ideals of freedom and self-determination.

Yet, look what happened. The very effort of prosecuting this most terrible of all wars led directly to a transformation of the United States: from a non-militarized, relatively free and democratic nation to a global imperial power. This global imperial power evolved to a place where it became impossible for it to turn away from a devastatingly self-destructive path of empire as a way of life.


I believe that pacifists should actively critique World War II—not because our pacifism is only valid if we can prove the War was unjust but because part of the pacifist calling is to work for a more peaceable world. The myth that World War II was “just,” “necessary,” and even “good” has continued to underwrite much violence down to our present day.

Our critique, at least in part, may draw heavily on just war reasoning, as I have done in this essay, because our rejection of warfare is best based on both principled (or confessional) grounds and on pragmatic grounds. These two sources of moral reasoning are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

The line of disagreement in relation to war is not between pacifist and just war views nearly so much as between what I am calling “negatively disposed to war” and “positive disposed” views. The most fundamental issue is whether we assume war is necessary or we assume that the benefit of doubt should be against war. Among the “negatively disposed” views, I believe that the principled/confessional elements and the pragmatic elements are not in opposition but actually complement each other.

One consequence of affirming both principled and pragmatic moral resources in relation to war is that we may then recast the role of World War II in our thinking. It becomes a site of moral reflection rather than serving as the war to end all our moral reflection about war. Pacifists need not cede to war supporters the assumption that World War II proves that war can be just, necessary, and even “good”—an assumption that powerfully undermines just about all arguments for pacifism (even the “christological” ones).


[1] Robert Brimlow, “What about Hitler?” in Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, eds., A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 51 [44-59]. Brimlow’s argument is developed at more length in his book, What About Hitler? Wrestling With Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

[2] D. Stephen Long, “What About the Protection of Third-Party Innocents?” in Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, eds., A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Nonviolence (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012), 25 [18-30].

[3] Long, “What About,” 24.

[4] See Theodore G. Grimsrud, “An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious Objection to World War II,” PhD dissertation, Graduate Theological Union, 1988.

[5] Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960).

[6] Key thinkers advocating some version of this view include Paul Ramsey (War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1960] and The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility [New York: Scribners, 1968], James Turner Johnson (Can Modern War Be Just? [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984]), and Jean Bethke Elshtain (Just War Against Terror: Ethics and the Burden of American Power in a Violent World [New York: Basic Books, 2003]).

[7] I have struggled to come up with a name for this view. “Blank check” may be too pejorative. However, terms such as “patriotic duty” or “nationalistic obedience” don’t quite capture the sense of uncritical acceptance that I see as central in how most citizens respond to governments’ calls to go to war even when the citizens themselves are not invested in the war themselves.

[8] Augustine, Contra Faustus, 22.75, in Henry Paolucci, ed., The Political Writings of St. Augustine (New York: Gateway Books, 1962), 164.

[9] This assertion is the burden of my recent book, from which much of what follows in this essay is drawn. See Ted Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), especially the conclusion, 244-65.

[10] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[11] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 27.

[12] See, for example, Michael Bess, Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Knopf, 2006), 338-45, and Kenneth D. Rose, Myth of the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (New York: Routledge, 2008), 251-4.

[13] Eric Bergerud, “Critique of Choices Under Fire,” Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society 9 (2008), 41.

[14] Norman Davies, No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945 (New York: Penguin, 2006), 63.

[15] See Theodore S. Hamerow, Why We Watched: Europe, America, and the Holocaust (New York: Norton, 2008). Hamerow writes in support of the Allied leaders in face of charges they were anti-Semitic. However, in arguing that these leaders were constrained by circumstances from effectively saving Jewish lives, he also confirms that saving Jewish lives was not part of the purpose of the War for Americans.

[16] Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 2nd edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009): “War provided killers with both a cover and an excuse for murder; in wartime, killing was normalized, and extreme, even genocidal measures could be justified with familiar arguments about the need to defend the homeland. Without the war, the Holocaust would not—and could not—have happened” (vii).

[17] For the text of the Atlantic Charter, see

[18] William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004).

[19] Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, trans. Linda Haverty Rugg (New York: New Press, 2001).

[20] James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

1 thought on “Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

  1. Pingback: Abandonment of the Use of Force | River View Friend

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